Mark Steyn thinks Howard Dean is just that.

It is always slightly discombobulating when someone you’ve known for years and always written off as a mediocrity with no talents suddenly leaps to phenomenal success.

In my line of work, it’s usually some fellow hack whose first novel gets optioned by Miramax for Cameron Diaz. But right now it’s happening on a much larger scale to someone called Howard Dean. If you have never heard of him, don’t worry. You’ll soon be never hearing of him ever again. But just for the moment he is, improbably, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. As another famous Dean once sang, “Everybody loves somebody sometime,” and Howard Dean’s sometime is now. Go, Deano.


And I agree with the substance of this:

In a field split between five lackluster congressional sell-outs and three fringe whackos, he has done a superb job at positioning himself as the heart of the party. As he put it in his craftiest soundbite to date, he’s there to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” These are the people who are fed up being told by the slick consultants that they need to make themselves more indistinguishable from the Republicans, and then they wind up losing anyway, as they did in 2000 and 2002. At least when Bill Clinton sold out the left on welfare and governed as an Eisenhower Republican, he was getting some terrific oral sex in return.

I think this is exactly why Dean is doing so well right now: He’s the red meat Democrat.

This is assessment is plausible and interesting, but I’d like to see some research on his fundraising to know whether it is actually true:

On “Meet The Press,” the would-be commander in chief didn’t know how many people were in the U.S. armed forces. Big deal. To his admirers, not knowing how many soldiers America has is a plus. To these guys, a lone GI would be one soldier too many.

But on the issues this crowd cares about, Mr. Dean is an expert. The reason he’s piling up all the big money from out of state boils down to two words: civil unions. Three years ago, Vermont became the first state in the nation to recognize a form of legal relationship for same-sex couples, and that puts Mr. Dean on the cutting edge of the issue du jour. Bringing civil unions to Vermont was “the most important event in my political life,” he says, though at the time he was going round the state telling folks he was only doing it because the Vermont Supreme Court made him, and, instead of the usual showboating public ceremony, he signed the legislation behind closed doors. But out in Hollywood all Barbra Streisand and the other high-rollers know is that, if gay marriage is your big priority rather than Iraq and national security and all the other trivia, then Mr. Dean’s your man. In a way, he is the first beneficiary of a prominent, organizationally effective, big-money gay bloc in the Democratic Party.

In fact, though it wasn’t designed with him in mind, Mr. Dean could have been custom-built for this election’s highly compressed primary season. Gay marriage is the perfect issue for long-distance pre-primary fund-raising, where he has managed to do serious and possibly fatal damage to Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Bob Graham. His general leftishness will play well with voters in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, where he figures he can sink Dick Gephardt. His Vermontiness will appeal more to New Hampshire Democrats on Jan. 28 than John Kerry’s Massachusetts hauteur. By the time the big cluster of Sun Belt primaries rolls around on Feb. 3, Mr. Dean reckons he can use his record on gun control (Vermont has none) to ditch the Northeast liberal baggage and sell himself to Southern white males, seeing off his last opponent, North Carolina’s John Edwards.

Interesting. I’m still expecting Lieberman or Gephardt to make a better showing, as they strike me as the most plausible nominees. But this may indeed be a season where the Democratic nominating electorate is more visceral than logical.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kelli says:

    I agree, generally, with you and Mark re. Dean. We just have to wait and see how deep the appeal is (that is, if his current supporters dump him in time, hold their noses, and pull for a qualified candidate, or if they ride this horse straight over the 2004 cliff).

    This is where the inside/outside beltway divide becomes an unbridgeable gulf. Friends inside the beltway may not like Bush and co, but we know that guys like Ashcroft, who may be dangerous and may or may not be an idiot to boot, is not an all-powerful capo who can send thugs to our house at midnight with impugnity. Outside the beltway, I have been told (many times) that he is the antichrist and that entire families are contemplating emigrating to Canada. Inside the beltway Gephardt and Lieberman are respected as guys who get things done and stand for something (we don’t always know what it is, but something). Outside, they are seen as hacks and toadies to (respectively) the unions and the Zionists.

    In short, if you think Bush is driving the country into the crapper and fast, Dean is talking your language. I suggest the other Dems pick up a bit on that fury before its too late. Dean may fizzle, but if there’s no one there to take his place, we all lose.

  2. Mark S. says:

    Like it or not, Democrats see Gephardt as a loser – and rightly so. Democrats see Lieberman as an “emergency Republican” – see this week’s Doonesbury – only modestly better than Bush.

    I’ve got to say that I really don’t understand this meme that Dean doesn’t have a chance. The rule for running for president is you run to the base in the primaries and to the center for the generals. It’s been done like this for years. With a compressed primary, whoever wins the Democratic nomination will have done so by mid-March or something – six months isn’t enough time to run to the center? With hardly anybody paying attention until then? Puh-leeze.

    More to the point, when Dean does run to the center, it’ll look legit, because he’s a lot more centrist than media people tend to let on. Sure, there’s the civil unions thing, but there’s also balanced budgets, there’s guns, there’s smallish government. Universal health care doesn’t look too radical these days, either, with the Republicans up to their necks in the biggest expanded entitlement since LBJ’s days.

    And there isn’t anything that towering about Bush, frankly, either. His numbers are soft, he’s in a heap of trouble in Iraq, and it’s not like he has any ideas about the economy. Fear only gets you so far. Looks to me like there are a lot of chances for Dems in ’04, if they’re brave enough to reach for them.

  3. joy says:

    Mark, I just find it really odd that in your post, the two words “jobs” and “national defense” never actually came up in conjunction with the name Howard Dean.

    I still think that the game is open until we see what the voters really value in a president.

    PS: I’m amused that Steyn can only get WCAX. It’s like the only news station around here that is Vermont centered, and puts out a half decent newscast.

  4. hmm.... says:

    Lieberman and Gephardt are guaranteed to get slaughtered by Bush. The presidency is a popularity contest, and they have NO charisma. Dean is the most charismatic in his own way. Edwards is second but he seems too boyish..he needs a new hairstyle or something. Kerry is too hang-dog. And the rest are either too lefty or too black to get elected in this great Union.

  5. Well, Mark S. forgets about one campaign in which the Dem didn’t “run to the center” in the general election: 2000. If Al Gore had run to the center, I wouldn’t personally know every single one of the white Southerners who voted for him. If he’d managed to carry Tennessee (which he had done in the past when he actually was a centrist), he’d be president.

    Unlike Steyn, though, I don’t see Vermont as an albatross for Dean. I doubt most swing southern voters know anything about Vermont, and if he can keep the focus on the “small government” aspects of Vermont (granted, largely not of his own doing) he can make it a positive.

    As for national defense, no Democrat nominee in living memory has been credible on that issue, not even the Great White from Hope, and none of the current pack is either (Graham’s half-wackiness not withstanding), so that’s largely a wash.